By the time you read this, the question of who will be the next President of the U.S. will have a considerably less uncertain answer than it does as I write. In fact, that next President will have been sworn in. Today, that development seems impossibly distant. That’s how mired the election is in recounts, court challenges, partisan state officials and dueling bands of supporters, or so it seems from Bombay. There was even what the Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot called a mere “bourgeois riot,” a gang of well-fed Bush supporters who stormed through offices and intimidated Miami-Dade County officials into shutting down their recount of votes.
As numerous Indian wags have observed, it’s as though we in India transplanted some of our maestros of election-time mayhem to Florida. Then again, that state has its own share of such maestros. Wasn’t there a Xavier somebody who once won election as Miami’s Mayor on the strength of numerous votes from Miamians who were very dead, or otherwise incapable of voting for themselves?
Anyway, the mess will get sorted out and someone will become President. Me, I hope it isn’t Dubya Bush. Not because I particularly like Al Gore, who has always struck me as a somewhat self-righteous and inflated dude with a wife to match (remember Tipper Gore’s campaigns against “lewd” rock lyrics?).
No, there are two reasons I hope Dubya doesn’t make it to the White House and neither of them is Gore.
One, I am convinced Bush won less votes than Gore did. Nationwide, yes, and that’s already proved; but also in wacky Florida itself. Just the antics of the Bush campaign in the state, of “bourgeois rioters” and their cheerleaders like Gigot, persuade me that they all know that a full and fair recount will tip the state to Gore.
Two, Dubya has got to be the worst candidate any major American party has offered the electorate in my memory. Worse than his father, worse than Ronald Reagan. Intellectually in the Dan Quayle mould; ideologically hollow; and now proving he isn’t particularly committed to a basic tenet of democracy, counting the cast vote: no, there’s nothing I like about this man.
Of course, you will read this when all I have written so far is stale news, perhaps even something of a joke. And surely you don’t particularly want to know my choice between Dubya and Al. So why write about their tangle?
Because this most extraordinary election can tell us in India some things. One thing in particular. What is the importance of Florida to this election? Nationwide, Gore leads by over a quarter of a million votes. This is a margin that Bush will not overcome even if he wins Florida. In other words, if this was any other democracy—ours, for e.g.—Bush would have lost without needing to spend weeks wrangling over results in Florida. That he has not conceded, and may very well be the next President, is because of that unique American institution: the Electoral College.
The idea of the college was that smaller states would get a voice in the election. In a popular-vote-wins-it tussle, a candidate might be tempted to spend her time in large, easily reached centres of population, reasoning that carrying those could give her a plurality of the vote. And in fact, at a micro level, that does happen in the elections I vote at in India. In all the polls here, not once has even one candidate visited my building, or even my middle-class street. With only limited time available, candidates decide that it is far better to concentrate on the dense pockets: chawls, slums and the like. More votes are to be had in such places than in my building of 14 apartments, two permanently closed.
But how different things might be if my building carried two Electoral College votes. A candidate might still ignore us, but his opponent might campaign here and win enough buildings like mine, or smaller hamlets—two electoral votes here, three there—to offset losses in more populous pockets. And in so doing, he might win the Electoral College by winning a wider swathe of the constituency. This is actually what Dubya has accomplished: less popular votes than Gore, but if you look at the states each has won, Bush could make a very good case that he won a broader slice of America.
The point here is not that the Electoral College is a perfect system. It isn’t, and this very election has thrown up enough strong arguments against it too. But to me, what it stands for is the serious thought the founding fathers of the U.S. gave to that other basic tenet of democracy: allowing everyone, no matter how small, a voice. The Electoral College is the mechanism they devised to encourage candidates and elected representatives to listen to such voices. They recognized that this is the profound reality behind what is otherwise a simple idea: the majority rules. In fact, in a democracy the majority rules because, and precisely because, the minorities have their say.
This is an insight into democracy that could serve our Indian version of it well. We don’t often think about the implications of being a democracy. Are we one solely because we vote? Or does the idea of democracy—even the idea of India, to borrow Sunil Khilnani’s phrase—mean more, demand more?
These are not questions with simple answers, nor am I trying to say that the U.S. has answered them right. What I am trying to say is that democracy demands thought, mechanisms, institutions. The Electoral College is the way the U.S. addressed the question of giving a voice to small states, and the message is actually deeper: that everybody will be heard. We in India might find our own way that is quite different, but find it we must. For without such a mechanism, our natural tendency is not to hear the smaller, softer voices; worse, to ignore or stifle them. Arguably, that is just what has happened to such groups of Indians as our tribals and those who live in our troubled Northeast.
A long and rambling train of thought from bourgeois riots in Florida, I know. But that’s just why this Presidential election can be so interesting when seen from India.
Then again, there’s always the dismissive and faintly supercilious option a famous banner on Bombay’s Marine Drive offers this week. “Want to be confused?” it asks. “Look at U.S. elections.”
A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.